Saturday, 28 January 2012


Mumpreneur, a word newly recognised by the Oxford Dictionary, is a good example of two words combined to make a new one which nicely expresses some novel aspect of the way we live. Such new words and phrases are being invented all the time but I am still waiting for someone to come up with an alternative to ‘arts centre’. It’s an ungainly and unimaginative description applied to places which deserve more linguistic distinction than to be lumped in with ‘shopping centre’, ‘medical centre’ or ‘Ministry of Transport Vehicle Testing Centre’. Personally, I would prefer a phrase with less of an institutional ring and more of an evocative one such as, say, ‘amusement arcade’. Could someone, please, at least come up with a description that omits the word ‘centre’?

Arts centres may all have the same unfortunate name but (and this is partly to the point) they don’t all offer the same thing. One Monday evening I travelled about three miles to a slightly-out-of-town arts centre. The place is a huge, purpose-built regeneration project, a pioneer, “destination” building on a former brownfield site. Having miscalculated the travelling time via the tram I arrived with half an hour to spare and struggled to find a profitable way to spend it. The galleries were closed so I headed for the large, open-plan bar. There were four adults and an assortment of toddlers occupying a couple of sofas on one side of the space and, on the other side, a man and woman in ardent conversation. The solitary staff member was leaning behind the bar, arms folded and face blank. I imagine she was anticipating the end of her shift. I chose a seat in the neutral space between the other customers and proceeded to read every word on the stack of flyers I had collected from the front desk. There are three theatre spaces at this venue but, that evening, they were all dark and the fringe event I was attending had attracted around 50 people. When it was over we trickled through the vast foyer and out into the desolate, windswept piazza to walk either to the tram stop or the multi-storey car park. There was nothing else.

The following afternoon, on a whim, I walked to an arts centre in the city centre. It occupies a couple of old buildings next to a mainline rail station and at the intersection of two main roads - one of which is reputed to be Europe’s busiest bus route. The place was buzzing – as it usually is – not only because it’s a good arts centre but also because it is an ideally situated meeting place. The prominent location and the volume of “passing trade” ensure that its bar and cafe benefit from the constant presence of that vital ingredient - people. It is not a place, like a stadium, where people only come and go with the staging of events; it is a convenient, familiar venue moulded by constant human interaction into a lively hub of creative interests.

This will be gone in a couple of years. The planners have decided it should be relocated to a purpose-built complex on a brownfield site half a mile away – a geographically obscure place which will have no passing trade. Yes, the glittering new building will have bigger and better facilities; yes there will be ample and convenient parking and yes, there is a possibility it might eventually regenerate that dead corner of the city. No doubt there will be a lot of new signage to help the lost and bewildered but, if and when they get there, they will find a very different kind of facility. They will surely note the difference between the original, unique, organically grown, human-scale, interactive space and that which replaces it - the aptly named, arts centre.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Hopeful on the High Street

When I began to take a serious interest in hill-walking, back in the 1980s, I kitted myself out with specialist clothing made from polyester fabric which is effective at retaining body heat while still allowing perspiration to escape. I soon discovered it has a couple of drawbacks: it is wickedly electro-static and, after only a few hours, reeks of armpits. Despite this being common knowledge since the 1960’s (the era of nylon, drip-dry shirts) I, and many others, convinced ourselves that we needed to spend small fortunes on garish garments which could be easily spotted (and probably smelt) by mountain-rescue teams. Lately many of us have returned to Nature’s own hi-tech fabric: worn by millions of sheep in New Zealand, it is called Merino wool and has re-generated the outdoor-clothing business. Nowadays unwanted polyester pullovers (ironically known as ‘fleeces’) can be bought for the price of a pint of beer at many High Street clothing shops.

But the High Street has long been full of things I neither want nor need, as was reconfirmed recently when I went in search of some Merino socks. The specialist outdoor-pursuits shops had plenty of the thick, chunky hiking variety but I was looking for an apparently rare type – the svelte city-sock – and without success. Manchester city centre has no shortage of men’s clothing shops but most of them are really in the business of selling fashion-branded garments and are unconcerned with the niceties of fabric types. Humble socks are relegated to racks at the back of the shop and, being low-ticket items, are not well understood by staff.

My search would have been better conducted on the internet but this had now turned into an ad-hoc research project during which I began to question the value of the big, familiar shops which aim to reassure customers by offering consistency but, in the process, are responsible for perpetuating uniform patterns of behaviour. I hankered after different shops. Someone told me that in Amsterdam, for example, coffee-shop chains are banned from the city centre for fear that the place would lose one of its main attractions – the charming variety of individual, owner-managed cafes which lend character to the place. This may have been achieved by timely civic legislation in Amsterdam but it is too late for such controls to be applied to Britain’s High Streets where landlords have tied their tenants into long contracts with periodic, upwards-only rent reviews.

Change may be on the horizon: I notice that the first charity shop has opened on one of the main shopping streets in Manchester and, although the word “blight” may spring to mind, along with visions of poor, semi-derelict High Streets elsewhere, it may well be that the charity shop signals a point in a cycle of regeneration. The last few decades have been marked by retail-chain expansion which has driven rents upwards with the consequence that more modestly capitalised independent businesses have lost their toe-hold. The lending and borrowing which has nourished this process has, at last, become unsustainable and the inevitable consequence is collapse. The corporate retail chains, whose spread has spoiled the individuality of Britain’s High Streets, have taken to sheltering in malls where their business model can be sustained, their high costs recouped from the heavy footfall of shoppers who prefer to put comfort and convenience before risk and adventure.

Charity shops may be the first to seize the opportunity but, as landlords are obliged by market forces to reduce rents, smaller businesses will be able, once more, to populate the High Streets where they will do what they do best – attract curious, interested customers by offering quirky, individual experiences. And when these customers come they will bring with them the life that makes High Streets buzz again.

Saturday, 14 January 2012


On a grey Sunday afternoon, at the beginning of January, I was at home contemplating my NYRs (New Year’s Resolutions) when I became aware of the sound of helicopters circling low over the city and emergency sirens echoing around the streets. Could this, I thought, be the beginning of the much-anticipated revolution, the Northern Spring?  Alas no: it was merely the routine aftermath of another local football derby - a ‘sporting’ event.

No change there; nor in my NYRs which comprised the usual drink less, think more and keep fit intentions. Last year I decided it would help if I joined groups of like-minded people for encouragement and support, but the outcomes were disappointing. In the first instance my friends proved reluctant to commit to the idea of going out for fewer drinks (which has led me to consider the NYR ‘get new friends’). On the thinking front, I joined a newly established philosophy discussion group, which could have worked out well but for the fact that we had neither sufficient knowledge to sustain discussion nor the will to acquire it. And then there were the various gym classes which I embraced enthusiastically - too enthusiastically, as it turned out, for the net result was my having to seek osteopathic treatment for a disjointed spine.

I even thought of teaming up with the Chinese senior citizens who exercise publicly each morning in the little park nearby. They are a loose congregation of six or seven tiny, ancient women who make barely-perceptible movements of their limbs. I once stood shyly on the periphery, undecided whether to approach (it is rumoured that they have never learned to speak English) and ask to join. Although theirs was not quite the vigorous workout I really needed I thought it inspirational in its unselfconscious and dutiful performance. In the end, however, it proved to be a cultural step too far for me: I lost my nerve and fell back into solitary-resolve mode.

NYRs would be easier to keep if we all agreed to adopt the same ones; they would become part of our social fabric and, like the Chinese ladies, we would all pull together for the greater good. We could take a vote and choose NYRs which would really make a difference to society. If, for example, we all gave up drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, the money spent repairing the collateral damage could be diverted into education; if all football supporters resolved to be friendly and sporting to each other, peace would break out and the resources of law and order would become available for helping old ladies across roads.

If this sounds too totalitarian to bear, individualists and anarchists need have no fear of it ever happening: our society is too loose a confederation of tribes to allow for any such unity of purpose. Although, peculiarly, when it comes to international sporting competitions, tribes seem happy to set aside their differences and unite under national flags. The Olympic Games, the mother of them all, will soon be upon us and enthusiastic, consolidated tribes from around the world will compete in a £9 billion (at least) orgy of flag-waving, podium-posturing, medal-ranking displays of national pride egged on by commercial sponsors keen for ever-multiplying numbers of viewers. Those of us who may have lost the battle of the NYRs - to give up drinking and smoking, lose weight and get fit - can watch those who apparently have not as they strive for national glory on our behalf.

Participation in the Olympic Games may not be on my agenda but my NYRs are no less a challenge to my personal abilities. I’ve made a start by aiming to get through January in one piece. That in itself should win me a medal.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Radio Star

Video killed the radio star: maybe - but it certainly didn’t kill radio stations. In fact digital and internet technologies have ensured their multiplication. Mostly they comprise music-based programmes offering soundtracks to our busy lives, but there is at least one station which features not music but old-fashioned story-telling and drama. I like the idea of this but the reality is problematic: stories require some effort, some concentration on the part of the listener; for the thread of a story is easily lost if one is distracted by other activities such as checking e-mail, making tea, reading the papers or popping out for a breath of fresh air. Would-be fans like me face the challenge of fending off such distractions in order to benefit from careful, attentive listening to the story.

Long gone is radio’s 1930’s heyday when manufacturers advertised their appliances with pictures of contented families, gathered around cosy hearths, listening with rapt and undivided attention to loudspeakers in huge wooden boxes. Things have moved on: the contented families still look happy and the hearths cosy but the boxes are nowadays supplanted by big, shiny flat-screens - which have the advantage of being able to command not just one but two of our five senses, thereby pinning us to our seats for hours on end. This is serious competition for radio drama’s one-dimensional appeal – and it may be the reason why there are not too many stations offering such fare.

Acting on the use-it-or-lose-it principle, I decided to boost audience ratings while testing my own resolve. I scanned the schedules, found a radio play I would like to hear and made my preparations: I ticked the outstanding items on my to-do list, fixed an imaginary 1930’s wireless set in my mind, chose a comfortable chair and settled down to some dedicated listening.  I was soon rewarded by a plot that was engaging, acting that was convincing and sound-quality that was excellent. So far so good: there was indeed satisfaction and pleasure to be had from broadcast story-telling. Yet it proved not quite enough to keep my attention from wandering and before long my eyes began to cast around the room, falling on things that were in need of fixing or cleaning (and, in one case, throwing out). Then my thoughts began to stray into speculation about future events, such as my next meal, and I was finding it difficult to overcome the urge to fidget, write lists of things to do, reach for a book or magazine, get up to make a pot of tea or otherwise satisfy the cravings of the redundant senses. Resisting these temptations was difficult but I held my position, determined to persist with my experiment. Perhaps, I thought, I should close my eyes and concentrate hard.

When I woke up it was to the sound of an unfamiliar voice: “That’s Cross Incontinence, tonight at 8.30”. What was this - a programme about Irritable Bowel Syndrome? What happened to the play? It eventually dawned on me that I had missed most of the play and had woken, a little confused, to a trailer for a programme called Crossing Continents.

Later that day I opened an email from the City Library reminding me that they offer audio books which can be downloaded. I’m not falling for that again! I tried it once but was fast asleep before the end of the first chapter and could never work out how to find my place. At least with a printed book you can pick up where you left off when you dropped off. As for radio plays; if anyone has any practical listening suggestions please let me know.